May 2021 | Books & Links

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Skylark – Dezső Kosztolányi

When the library reopened last month I could only borrow books that were available at my main branch, as the reservations system wasn’t up and running. My branch is quite limited in its offerings, as they mostly just stock popular fiction and popular biographies. There’s nothing wrong with those, but they’re not my cup of tea. My branch does have a few shelves of classics but they’re hit and miss. The selection I pulled out and took a chance on were mostly misses.

I gave up on Skylark a few chapters in, because I didn’t care for any of the characters or really have any interest in where the story was heading. That’s the beauty of library books; you can freely abandon those you do not like!

The Balkan Trilogy – Olivia Manning

Now this one I gave a little bit more time to, because I like Olivia Manning’s writing style and the historical period in which it is set is one I am interested in. However, I couldn’t abide by the tone of the book or the way Manning – writing semi-autobiographically – described non-English characters, and particularly the Romanian locals she / her character Harriet met whilst stationed in Romania with her husband’s / Harriet’s husband’s academic job. It might well be a novel of its era and Olivia Manning an author describing a vanished world and cultural norms of English expats in the 1930s – 1950s, but that doesn’t make it any easier to digest as a reader in the 2020s. It’s very “dear chap” and “old boy” and generally condescending towards non-English people and cultures. I gave it five chapters, but then couldn’t take any more so set it aside.

The Bell in the Lake – Lars Mytting

With a translated work, a lot rides on the translator. I don’t know what this is like to read in the original Norwegian but I didn’t like the tone or the omniscient narrator in the English version of this one. It reads like a children’s book and I found it hard to feel a connection to any of the characters as a result, as the narration skips from character to character and lacks depth. I have another of Lars Mytting’s books that I picked up in Oxfam Books last month, so I’ll give that a go, but this one isn’t for me. I am picky though, it’s rare that I find a book with an omniscient narrator or a book written in the second person that I can tolerate.

Links & Articles

With the re-escalation of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories this month, I have been reading a lot on the subject to try to deepen my understanding of politics in the Middle East. I found this article in Jewish Currents – also syndicated to the Guardian – very interesting. It is a left-wing Jewish perspective on Palestinian refugee return and resettlement within the state of Israel, and highlights some of the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of Zionism.

Also by Peter Beinart, but published in 2019, this article debunks the idea that criticism of the state of Israel or opposition to Zionism is anti-Semitic. It can be, but it isn’t by default, and we need to be able to hold states that claim to be democracies to account. During the height of the May violence I found that social media, as always, polarised and simplified the narrative.